By Max Saffer
Despite six AFC Championship appearances and a ring from Super Bowl XI, Warren Bankston is not sure he would have played professional football if he knew what he knows now.
“The truth of the matter is you didn’t know what you were getting yourself into,” Bankston, 66, said in a phone interview. Bankston played fullback and tight end in the NFL for 10 seasons, his first four with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and his last six with the Oakland Raiders.
What he didn’t know was the possible long-term damage that hard hits could cause years later. He also had this description of the first time he was knocked unconscious in an NFL game.
“I can’t remember if it was my second or third year, but Terry Bradshaw was the quarterback,” he said. “I got into the huddle and I can still remember the play – near right, counter 15, trap on two, ready break.”
“Both (offensive) backs took a hard step to the right and I countered to run off left tackle. And Dick Butkus read it like he was reading a first grade children’s book,” Bankston said in his warm Louisiana accent.
“Within half a second Butkus waylaid me. I go to the sidelines, and of course at that time they just hold up three fingers, and you say two, and they say close enough.”
“After about 10 plays I go back out, and you can’t make this up, I lean into the huddle and Bradshaw says – near right, counter 15, trap, on two, ready break. And I’m thinking about Butkus, who felt like a train when he hit me. I’m thinking – chuu chuuuuuu. So I call this the chu chu story,” Bankston said laughing. “Well, he gets me again, and knocks me out of the game.”
Bankston’s older brother, Ronnie, 72, remembers those hits. “They were both helmet to helmet,” he recalled.
What Bankston does not remember correctly is that the incident happened during his rookie season and Terry Bradshaw was still playing college football for Louisiana Tech University.
Bankston is one of more than 4,000 retired NFL players who are suing the NFL claiming that the league withheld information about the dangers of concussions and brain trauma.
Judge Anita Brody is reviewing a $765 million dollar settlement reached in the summer of 2013.
From an early age Bankston seemed destined to be a pro.
At Hammond High School in Hammond, Louisiana, he played quarterback for the football team; he played varsity baseball, varsity basketball, and track, winning a state championship in javelin. He graduated with honors and attended Tulane University, where he was elected into Tulane’s football hall of fame in 1981.
“Warren is one of the most unsung pro athletes you are going to find,” said his high school coach Dr. Glenn Brady, 78, from Clinton, La. “He is humility personified.”
Despite suffering what he believes were “five or six concussions” during his NFL career, Bankston’s success in professional football would be the envy of most NFL players.
The Steelers picked him in the second round of the 1969 draft, 42nd overall after selecting Mean Joe Greene in the first round and Terry Hanratty in the second.
“The only game we won my rookie season was our first game,” he recalled. Bankston scored the winning touchdown on a six-yard run in the fourth quarter. “I had fumbled earlier in the game and like it said in the paper, I went from goat to hero. Then we lost 13 in a row.”
The next year, coach Chuck Noll selected Terry Bradshaw as the first overall pick and the Steelers improved to 5-9.
After four seasons with the Steelers, Bankston was traded to the Oakland Raiders in 1973, nine months after beating them in the divisional playoffs on what has become known as the “immaculate reception.”
“Franco Harris was the man of the hour,” said Bankston who was watching from the sideline. “We were behind and its fourth down with 22 seconds left in the game,” he said setting the scene.
“Bradshaw dropped back and throws the ball back across the field to Frenchy Fuqua. Jack Tatum closed in on em, and the ball, Fuqua, and Tatum were all there at the same time,” he said starting to raise his voice.
“The ball goes careening like the shape of a rainbow up in the sky and Harris catches the ball about a foot off the ground, runs it in for a touchdown, and we win the game,” said Bankston, “I was thinking I was going to open my eyes and wake up at any moment.”
In 1974 and 1975 Bankston traveled back to Pittsburgh with his new team to play the Steelers in the AFC Championship. Pittsburgh won both and went on to win the Super Bowl.
“You’re not bitter, but you are envious,” he said. “You line up and you do the best you can. They were the better team.”
The next season, in 1976, the Raiders lost only one game securing home field advantage for the playoffs and forcing the Steelers to travel to Oakland for the AFC Championship.
Warren Bankston would have the best game of his career. As special teams captain and the second tight end, Bankston was all over the field. In the first quarter he stretched his formidable 6-foot-4-inch frame and laid out to block a punt that led to a field goal, the only score in the first quarter. Then just before half he caught a four-yard touchdown pass giving the Raiders a 10-point lead.
“Warren was a great player, you do not play 10 years by accident,” said David Humm, the back-up quarterback that season for the Raiders.
Oakland went on to win 24-7 and earn a trip to Super Bowl XI, the first to be hosted in the Rose Bowl on January 9th, 1977.
Bankston flew his entire family to Pasadena for the game. “It was a beautiful day,” he remembers. “I mean perfect. A hundred thousand people were there, tickets were 20 bucks apiece. I bought 47 for my friends and family, $940 dollars total. If you bought 47 Super Bowl tickets today, you’d have to be Bill Gates or Warren Buffet.”
On that beautiful, perfect day, Bankston called the coin toss correctly, and his Raiders beat the Minnesota Vikings, 32-14, giving Oakland its first Super Bowl victory.
Bankston left the NFL after 10 seasons. He then built a career in the commercial real estate business and today lives outside New Orleans in Kenner, Louisiana. He and his wife Kelly have four children and seven grandchildren.
“I’m 66 now, and the other day I forgot my granddaughter’s name,” he said. “At first I was ashamed to tell my son. It’s embarrassing, but revealing. What’s next? Am I going to forget who my wife is?
“Only in the last two years have concussions come to the forefront,” he said. “It’s become more and more undeniable that people are getting memory loss, Alzheimer’s, dementia, suicidal thoughts, and abusive behaviors.”
Addressing the suit, Bankston said, “I think the powers that be in the NFL were getting pressured more and more to not keep sweeping everything under the rug, so they said, ‘Let’s come up with a pretty big number and that way we don’t have to reveal what we know.’ But you can’t really put a figure on it, because $765 million may be more than we ever need, but on the other hand, in 15 or 20 years if the money is all gone; what are they going to do?”
Then referring to the deaths of three prominent players, he added, “If I knew about Junior Seau, Mike Webster, and Dave Duerson, I might have said, ‘I’m just going to go back to school and become a doctor, a lawyer, or a Indian chief, anything,’ and bypassed professional football all together.”